Journalism in the Public Interest


Podcast: Millions Wasted on Brand-Name Drugs in Medicare

This week, Steve Engelberg brings Charlie Ornstein and Tracy Weber to the Storage Closet Studio to talk about the latest piece in their yearlong investigation of Medicare Part D. One of the biggest takeaways from their analysis of the prescribing habits of more than 1.6 million practioners in the U.S.: Just 913 internists, family medicine and general practice physicians cost taxpayers an extra $300 million in 2011 alone by disproportionately choosing name-brand drugs.

Some of those doctors believe that brand-name drugs are better, Ornstein and Weber say, but other factors are at work, too, such as pressure from patients, relationships with drug sales reps -- or direct financial ties to the pharmaceutical companies themselves: Since 2009, 48 percent of those 913 prescribers have received at least $1,000 for speaking, consulting and other promotional purposes, according to data ProPublica compiled from company web sites.

Why hasn't Medicare cracked down on this wasteful prescribing?

"I think that Medicare didn't see it as their job to analyze this data," Weber says, which is particularly troubling because "only Medicare can see the whole prescribing of a doctor and would be able to identify the sort of trends that we did, where doctors have really high rates of brand-name prescribing."

Medicare officials have promised reforms in response to some of the revelations in ProPublica's reporting, and Ornstein and Weber will certainly continue to follow the story.

You can listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. And for more on their investigation, see:


Nov. 20, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

Besides costing the government and tax payers huge amounts of money it puts patients into the “donut hole” with adverse health effects. I have not yet seen this part of the problem addressed. As a retired nurse I know that folks halve doses, take a med every other day or just eliminate a drug altogether. Perhaps this is one of the reasons this country has such poor outcomes with such high cost.

And if the government gets too nosy about prescriptions we’ll gripe about big brother calling the shots.  Don’t trust the government!!!!!  Is it better to let an insurance accountant decide which medications you need?

I would like to put my trust in my doctor.  But finances may be the final deciding factor.  My last trip to the drug store cost me $160.  The insurance company wants me to substitute the meds and they’ll let me off with only $5.  Trouble is, my doctor says those substitute meds are not the same.  Do I trust my doctor or the insurance accountant?

Crooks and shysters will be crooks and shysters.  Government regulations and standards must be enforced to garauntee meds having the ingredients they claim to have and that they have met strict standards.

R St Rain

Jan. 10, 3:18 p.m.

I appreciate your research and your discoveries…....However, there are times when the generic does not work as the original medication did.  I have seen first hand when an insurance company persuades patients to purchase generic, due to high pricing of the original.  Often, when switched to the generic, the medication simply stops working.  Doctors who know this are not fraudulant but knowing that the generic is impotent. Studies, in this day, are no longer the science they may have once been.  Perhaps ProPublica could do interviews with patients. whom have been switched to a generic. and get their take…If the patient says the medicine no longer has helping effects, this should be taken seriously by the doctors and the public.


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